Get Me Outta Here
My eyelids tugged relentlessly towards sleep as I snapped my head, first right, then left. I pleaded with my senses to stay alert, and struggled to maintain mental focus as the speaker heartlessly inflicted his torrent of tedium and monotony. Joseph Wearisome’s presentation was mirrored only by the weather outside, where the sun was choked in a coffin of featureless, impenetrable cloud. Her golden glow dulled to grey drabness. Indoors, we sat captive, in this second floor meeting room, all thirty of us desperate for an early reprieve, but the clock smirked as it indicated ninety long minutes remaining.
I threw my focus about the room, first noting Bill, whose head hung back, mouth open, eyes shut. I thought, he’ll soon lean right or left and wake with a start. I wondered if he might snore, and introduce some levity to the lackluster proceedings. Glancing to the opposite wall, I saw Marjorie’s head droop forward, slowly accelerating downward, until suddenly she awoke and popped vertical, mouth closed, eyes wide. Within minutes, her eyes eased shut, and her head again began its descent towards the cool, inviting surface of the meeting room table.
This seventh week of project management training required coffee, will-power, and endurance. Our presenter had arrived unprepared. He stood up front, his back to the class, and read aloud each PowerPoint slide. I couldn’t make myself listen, so I fixated on the clock. Eighty-seven minutes left. My thoughts flitted from topic to topic and landed on John Green’s video series, “Crash Course History.”1
This put a grin on my face as I relived history classes from middle school and high school. Why were they so boring? Green’s history videos were fun. This realization brought annoyance as I questioned why schools won’t make history interesting. Suddenly, I looked at Wearisome, and through a partial grin, I whispered, “If history lessons don’t have to be boring, neither do business lessons!”
For the next eighty-five minutes, I asked myself how John Green might present Wearisome’s narration. What differentiated Green’s presentation from Wearisome’s? How would Green present business ideas? He had already charted a course for effectively communicating history, and his message had impact, how could we apply his methods to business?
Green consistently does three things in Crash Course videos that keep his audience engaged.
These methods are confirmed in two Forbes articles: An April 2014 article, “7 Essential Tips for Writers Who Hope to Engage Millions of Readers,”2 begins by suggesting you “tell a story.” Later the article suggests writers avoid telling readers what to do, but instead rely on the audience’s empathy. A couple of months earlier, in Forbes’ January 2014 article, “Five Easy Tricks to Make Your Presentation Interactive.”3 the article suggests creating opportunities for audience participation with presenters, as well as interaction with each other. Why, because interactive presentations are more memorable and impactful.
So how do you tell a story...about business?
In 2012, my step-son created a biology presentation for his Middle School science class. His topic was the ebola virus, and he told the ebola story, beginning with the first case in 1976. His presentation covered researchers, their frustrations and fears, as well as ebola survivors, their memories, and their nightmares. His presentation put a human face to ebola, and focused on the impacts that ebola has on people. He used facts and figures to tell his story, but relied on people's empathy. He earned an A.
In his story, he didn’t submerge his audience in facts and figures, rather he focused on who got sick, what happened, where it happened, when it occurred, and why it was so deadly. In my experience, Business writing too often omits who, where and even what, in favor of focusing on when and especially why. People seem to believe good business writing is always written from the third person, and free from bias. This is false, in fact, nothing we write can ever be free from bias. This doesn’t mean we should abandon the goal of objectivity, but rather than pretending we’re unbiased, we should simply acknowledge that pure objectivity is unattainable. We write business articles and deliver business presentations for the purpose of making a point, or influencing opinion. So rather than pretending to be objective and then boring our audience into sleep, let’s simply identify our point, and craft a good story to make that point.
Consider the topic of cyber security. A 2012 Michigan State University paper, contends that computer users, rely on stories to guide their computer security decisions.4 They don’t read white papers, or articles from security sites, they decide based on what happened to their aunt or brother-in-law who got a virus or had their identity stolen.
Read the following article introductions, and consider which you would most likely keep reading. Why?
An informal workplace poll revealed a unanimous preference for the second article. The reasons given were that they could imagine the situation. They could imagine themselves or someone they know getting a computer virus. They wanted to know how it happened and how they might avoid it, and how to fix it once it had happened.
Computer viruses, however are sort of dramatic. How do you tell a business story? Why not start with potential titles? Consider something like “Three Tales of Scope Gone Wild,” or “The Creep at Work: How to Keep Scope in Check.” Either title indicates that the article will tackle scope creep, and they both seem likely to tell the story of scope creep and the heroic victory of a skilled PM. Which are you more likely to read, “Three Tales of Scope gone wild,” or “Three Case Studies on the Effects of Unmanaged Scope?” If you selected the second title, keep reading, because this article is definitely for you. Seriously, you must stop creating content for people to read when they suffer insomnia.
Next step, your story probably ought to review decisions. Who made them and why? You might explore the impacts, and consequences. You could explore ways the situation might have been avoided or enhanced. In any case, your audience will thank you for not sterilizing the story. Instead, you could use a tried and true technique perfected in James Bond stories. Start your story in the middle of an action sequence. After that, when your audience is hooked, move on to background information and introduce the main characters.
Empathy...in business? Really?
Empathy happens when an audience imagines themselves experiencing events in a story. Maybe they flush with embarrassment when a story relates poor decisions and their consequences. Perhaps they glow with pride when the story celebrates triumph for tasks done right. Either way, you’ve tapped into empathy, when your audience experiences emotion while hearing your story.
Why is that important? Because your audience becomes invested in your story. The lessons they take away will be personal, memorable, and impactful. Your audience will discover their own wisdom, and if you’ve created a venue for interaction, they may share that wisdom. Your presentation’s value is directly affected by your willingness to trust your audience and have faith that they’ll generate wisdom from your lessons. Transmitting wisdom is difficult, however exploring decisions, results, and allowing others to find their own wisdom is a process that can lead to new ideas and new solutions. It is what sets great presenters apart from those who are good or OK.
A great example of effectively channeling empathy comes from Ted Cruz’s 2016 Presidential Primary campaign. Cruz’s campaign mined volumes of social media for data that they used to profile potential supporters. They used that data to develop individualized approaches for volunteers to use when knocking on doors. Prior to knocking on someone’s door, volunteers would check a custom app on their smartphone and learn what approach they should use with the people living in this house. Should they focus on disagreements with the current President, or on religious faith? Cruz’s campaign had invested a lot of effort into determining what individual approach would activate potential supporters’ empathy and resonate with their predispositions. A December 2015 Washington Post article detailed Cruz’s approach, and in it, his campaign credits their surprising success in polls with this data driven approach.5
What could we learn from this as project managers? The biggest thing is to know your audience. We should invest time into knowing who is on our stakeholder register. Who are team members are. What our executive leaders care about. When we craft presentations, emails, or articles, we can then ensure that our message is tailored for that specific intended audience, and that it activates their empathy, so that they will find wisdom in the story we tell.
Interactivity only applies in certain circumstances, right?
Not really. Technically the answer is yes, but only for those who want their audience to remember little of their message. I have, for example, watched countless TED talks. Every single one was interesting, engaging, and well delivered. However, I can’t even remember the topics for most of the talks I’ve watched. Which TED talks do I remember? The ones I watched with other people, and discussed after having watched them. Those TED talks stand out for me, in fact I emailed some of the TED presenters, so far with no response but their talks stand out in my memory.
The key here is interaction. Presentations impact me when I’ve had the opportunity to interact with others about the message--to engage with a group and explore how the topic does or doesn’t apply in various situations. After I’ve heard how others understood the message and how it seems relevant to them, my understanding of the topic shifts and suddenly, the talk becomes memorable, impactful, and relevant. Without that interaction, topics often feel abstract, regardless of how interesting or well presented.
So how do you make a business presentation interactive? The forbes article referenced above suggests letting people know there will be an opportunity for discussion and questions, but more importantly, to let the audience know you’ll expect interaction. Pause at various points and ask participants to take a few moments in small groups of two or three and formulate some questions or points of interest that they’d like to explore later. Alternately, begin the presentation by asking what they expect to get out of this event. It’s always good to know why they are there.
What about project kick-off meetings or status update meetings? I sat down with a co-worker and explored options for making a project kick-off meeting interactive, and we came up with a few ideas:
After giving an overview of the project, say something like, “Let’s take five minutes to explore how this project might impact your work. Based on the overview, what do you see?” Pause and wait. If no one volunteers after fifteen seconds, ask everyone to explore that question with their neighbor for a few moments, then ask for people to share. Be sure to take notes on what you hear, this could be valuable information that tells you what stakeholders expect.
Continue your presentation, but after delivering another chunk of information, ask people to take a few moments to consider their biggest concerns for this project. Be sure to record these as well. Some groups are reticent to perform risk management, but if you ask people about their concerns they’re often excited to share. With this information, you can do a risk analysis, search for risk triggers and possibly recruit risk monitors, by asking the very people who identified the the risks to begin with.
At the close of the presentation, ask people to take a few moments and think about what they’re most looking forward to out of the project. Like the concerns above, here is an opportunity to look at positive risk and possibly recruit people to monitor those and help you take advantage of them when the opportunities arise.
Beyond that, leave room for questions and encourage people to email or set appointments with you as they have additional thoughts about the project.
In person interaction is great, but if your presentation is online, or an article, maybe you want to encourage comments by closing with a question, and ensuring that you respond to every comment. Reference other comments when you respond, and encourage an online discussion, you might get new content for your next presentation out of that. Most importantly, your audience will benefit from an in-depth group exploration of the topic.
What are some of your ideas for encouraging interaction, creating empathy, or telling a good story? If you don’t think this a good idea, why not?
Thank you to Nina Fresquez for editing assitstance, and for assistance in generating ideas to make project kick-off meetings interactive
Edited by Sarah Maxwell, PMI Chapter Administrator
Would you agree that communication is critical to success?
Do you feel you are an effective and successful communicator?
According to PMI’s December 2013 White Paper, “Communication: The Message Is Clear,” more than sixty percent of business owners and executive sponsors believe they are doing a good job at communicating strategic alignment and business benefits for their projects.1 What do you think? Are you part of that sixty percent? Considering that only forty three percent of project managers agree with the assessments of leaders who claim to be effective communicators, who do you think is wrong?
No one in a position of leadership appreciates the notion that their communication skills are poor. We leaders prefer to see ourselves as one of “those people” who have communication handled. We collect evidence to support our assumptions and when challenged, we disagree and parade our evidence as proof against the charge. We do this at work, at home, and with our friends. Leaders dislike having our communication shortcomings highlighted, and when this happens, we tend to vigorously defend our status as expert communicators. This is all normal behavior which carries no cause for shame or embarrassment.
It does however, carry the cost of missing opportunities to enhance performance. It means we’ll continue to perform at the same level, a.k.a. on par with other leaders, rather than standing out. A question leaders might consider is, “do I want to accept typical behavior in myself, and with that, typical performance?” If yes, there is no need to read further. If the answer is no, and you wish to elevate your own performance and communication effectiveness, the next question gets personal. “Am I willing to humbly and honestly see where my communication falls short?” That question is key, and answering in the affirmative immediately confronts us with deep personal challenges.
For starters, let’s explore the traits or criteria of effective communication. According to the white paper referenced above, effective communication isn’t merely the transmission of facts. It must produce understanding among team members. It must engage everyone who is touched by the project, including managers, executive leaders, the project sponsor, and other stakeholders. Effective communication results in people understanding their role in the project.
If you consider yourself an effective communicator, take some time to consider your past projects from the context of the criteria listed above. Were any of those communication results missing in any or all of your projects? Did one or more of your projects experience misunderstanding on the part of the project team, stakeholders, or management? Did everyone understand his or her role in the project? Did you have some level of engagement from any group touched by the project? This is an opportunity to honestly search for evidence in your own performance that exposes you as an average or poor communicator. If you’re like me, you wonder why you would want to see yourself as an average or poor communicator. The answer lies in your goal: this perspective leaves ample room to boost performance. Who has more room for growth, an expert, or a novice? The key to elevating performance lies in our own perceptions of our own performances. How much room are we giving ourselves to improve?
To that point, I’ll confess my own arrogance. Employing humility is often difficult and bitter for me. I prefer to see myself as an adept communicator, a likable leader, and a caring team member. These positive self assessments aren’t useless; in fact they are essential when developing my resume or interviewing for a job. However, when my goal is self improvement, they are a hinderance. Consistently, I experience rapid growth only when I perceive myself as having ample room for improvement. With a humble perspective, I identify new opportunities for communication more easily. I am more open to critical feedback from peers and team members. According to Professor Bruce Winston, “we should not view ourselves as a full cup—something that cannot receive more—but rather as an empty cup, always willing to learn more from others.”2
According to PMI’s 2013 “The Essential Role of Communications,” one in five projects is unsuccessful due to ineffective communication.3 If you know four Project Managers whose projects are running successfully, is yours the one in jeopardy? I understand statistics don’t really work that way, but it might be a valuable perspective, particularly if it encourages a bit of humility and self examination. We have the power, through our own choice in perspective, to view ourselves as having ample room for growth and development, or to take the less valuable approach of seeing ourselves as developed, with maybe some minor polishing of finer details. Which choice will better enable our own breakthrough success and that of our teams?
If we examine some basics of project management communication from the context that we are poor or average communicators, let's see what becomes available. Let’s keep an eye open for how we aren’t employing important communication tools and methods. Let’s consider how we could better apply communication concepts from the PMBOK guide, let’s consider investing a little time into developing a personal communication plan for career growth.
I’ve often heard people say that ninety percent of a project manager’s job is communication. That is a lot of communication! According to a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, managers who communicate the same expectations more than once, and in a variety of media, consistently have the best results.4 Contrast that with how often you’ve seen a PM or other leader simply email meeting minutes to everyone or assume that everyone took good notes. Maybe their idea of communication is to post all important information to the intranet site and assume the key team members will see that. I remember a manager at a small company saying, “it is everyone’s responsibility to take notes, I may or may not distribute my meeting minutes.” All of these behaviors are valid, the perspectives aren’t wrong, but none of them accounts for ninety percent of your job being communication. Do any of these scenarios roughly approximate your standard communication plan? Are you feeling a little defensive that I’m even bringing these up? If so, just sit with the discomfort, let it dissipate, and try to examine the results of your projects from a neutral standpoint.
In considering past projects, and assessing my own communication, I’ve found it useful to consider how much stress I experienced, and how much stress my team experienced. I’ll ask myself if there were executive leaders expressing concern or regularly contacting me for updates. After thinking through these points, I consider whether modifying my communication plan to include alternate methods of reaching team members might have had a positive impact. What if I had identified people who really dislike email? Did I consider that some team members might have a reading disability or an auditory disability? Did I expect everyone to take notes, and if so, did I find out how many people knew how to take effective notes? Did I account for which people are better with organizing paper and which are better at organizing digital media? If my communication plan failed to account for these individual differences in how people receive information, could I have changed it to be more accommodating? Would that have made a positive difference for the project?
According to the PMBOK guide, a communications plan has four inputs:
Why do you think inputs to the communication plan include both stakeholder register and environmental factors? One obvious reason is that the stakeholder register provides a list of people who need to receive communications, while the environmental factors shed light on the expectations of communication within the organization. Could those inputs also help to ensure that a PM’s delivered message means the same thing when it is received? If I insist on communicating with team members in ways that specifically don’t work for them, are they likely to perform at their highest level? No one would disagree that a PM’s job is to deliver their projects on time, with sufficient quality, and within budget. Stated differently, they facilitate high performance among their project team. Wouldn’t that include communicating with team members in ways that encourage their best work?
An example that comes to mind is a contractor I worked for nearly ten years ago. He assigned me several small projects. He began each by giving me numerous detailed instructions describing what he wanted and how he wanted it done. I always had a notepad in which I wrote down my assignments. Feeling his time too short for my note-taking, the contractor looked at me, and said, “put that down...you don't need it, just listen carefully. You can write it all down after I leave.” What followed was a forty minute monologue with detailed explanations of the results he wanted and how he expected tasks to be completed. I couldn’t remember everything and ultimately, I failed to deliver on what he wanted. I’m tempted to lay this all on my boss. It would be easy; however, poor communication takes two. I was one of those two people, so while it is easy to see where my boss failed to provide good communication, I’ll instead focus on my own failures.
First, I didn’t let my boss know that I couldn’t remember forty minutes of detailed verbal instruction. Rather, I tried to save face by letting him talk and leave. I told myself that I would be able to succeed anyway. I didn’t let him know that while it might take a few extra minutes for me to write down his instructions now, it would pay off when I completed everything he wanted in the fashion he wanted; whereas, my failure to document his instructions would make success unlikely. In short, I let my ego get in the way of facilitating good communication, and in the process, I lost a job and very possibly hurt a local small business.
However, I did learn, and today, I will not proceed with a project while I lack confirmation that I understand expectations.
Beyond expectation, a PM who focuses exclusively on fulfilling the triple constraints of scope, schedule, and budget is a PM who fails to see how their project benefits the organization. This PM has not applied sufficient rigor to communicating with decision makers. They haven’t ensured their understanding of the business benefits that their project provides. How could a PM in this position effectively communicate their project’s benefits to stakeholders on their team, or throughout the organization? How could this PM know if their sponsor effectively communicates the project’s importance in the organization or to external customers? Wouldn’t an effective communications plan require the PM to understand their project’s strategic importance? Wouldn’t it include periodic reviews of project goals and anticipated benefits with the sponsor and other leaders?
Who is more valuable to an organization?
In his 2015 PMI Global Congress presentation, “The Promotable Project Manager: New Findings About the Leadership Behaviors of Successful Project and Program Managers NA15RES06,” Richard J. Heaslip presented data from studies about how project managers communicate. Specifically, he studied the level of leadership that PMs provide in various organizations.5 According to Heaslips findings, roughly fifty percent of executive leaders express a desire for their organization’s project managers to both conceive of and discuss their projects from the context of how those projects align with enterprise goals and how they will benefit the organization.
Even in organizations whose culture discourages PMs from communicating like this, your understanding of expected benefits will enable your communication with executives to inform their decisions about critical changes in scope. A result is that you and your team will be more valuable to the organization.
What happens if you don't do this? Maybe nothing, but let's explore another construction project I worked on more than twelve years ago. I was assigned a high profile sub-project on a multi-million dollar job. My manager clearly identified what he wanted me to do, who I could communicate with, and what his expectations were. I asked clarifying questions about tasks, my team, and appropriate communication channels. I focused on and delivered exactly what my manager requested, and I felt good about my work. But when I checked in with the manager, he didn’t seem very happy. Apparently, there were unspoken expectations that I didn’t identify, and which weren’t met. I failed to account for the fact that my project was taking place at the ranch manager’s residence, and that his wife would be home all day every day. I didn’t consider risks associated with interpersonal communications between my team and the manager’s wife. I ensured project completion in strict adherence to the triple constraint, however, when my manager reviewed the project with me, he said, “well, you did exactly what I asked, but the property manager isn’t very happy.” I asked what went wrong, but he was hesitant to give me any specific feedback. I shrugged and moved on. I didn't press for details on how I could improve my performance or if I needed to straighten something out with the property manager. I didn't understand the context inside of which my project existed and it hurt both me and my employer.
Today, when I begin a project, I often start with what the Harvard Business Review calls a premortem.6 I ask each team member to imagine that we’ve just wrapped up the project, and it went horribly wrong. Everything fell apart, and we’re all on the verge of looking for new jobs. Then I ask the team to tell me, what exactly went wrong, and how could we have addressed it? I ask people to avoid changing their answers based on preference for someone else’s. I really want a diverse list of what could go wrong.
In my experience, this exercise does a few things. First, it causes each team member to see how others think, and what their concerns are. Sometimes it exposes risks that were overlooked. But most importantly, it causes everyone to examine the project for obstacles and problems, and causes them to consider how they can individually affect project failure. This exercise causes team members to develop a sense of ownership for project success, and they begin exploring their internal communication requirements as a team. As the PM, I see a little of how each person thinks, and I gain insights into how I should communicate with each individual.
As the project proceeds, my communication relies on a mixture of personal interactions followed by an email summarizing agreements and deliverables. All meetings of more than three people require an agenda and succinct meeting minutes, which include action items, accountable parties, and due dates. Emails are best when they are short. Every email requires editing before distribution. The best emails are composed of short descriptions followed by bullet points and due dates. Emails should never be seen as an opportunity to fulfill on regrets for a missed career as a novelist.
Contrary to what most people think, it is difficult to over-communicate.7 It is easy to overwhelm people with verbose and irrelevant communication, which is not over communication, rather it is over-indulgence or laziness in editing. Communication is engaging, succinct, it tells a story, gives people context for what they are doing, and it is the key to success in business.
As you ponder your communication style, and how you want to develop a communication plan for your next project, maybe you’ll consider the following questions:
In closing, let’s reflect on the words of George Bernard Shaw, followed by Jim Rohn:
“The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”
--George Bernard Shaw
“Take advantage of every opportunity to practice your communication skills so that when important occasions arise, you will have the gift, the style, the sharpness, the clarity, and the emotions to affect other people.”
Edited & Reviewed by Sarah Maxwell, PMI Chapter Administrator
November 13, 2015, a new tragedy. I worked late that Friday and left my office in a hurry to meet my wife at a local Chinese restaurant for a quick dinner. We had plans to attend an Israeli-Palestine study group, which had been organized by a mutual friend. Neither of us much wanted to engage in a heavy topic at the end of a long week, however, the topic had serious potential to be interesting, and this friend is important to us both. Our attendance was important!
I arrived at the restaurant, and waited a few minutes for my wife. When she arrived, she looked upset. She sat down, soberly looked me in the eye, and asked, “Did you hear what happened?” I shook my head and braced for some bad news about one of our kids getting into trouble, or similar. She continued, “Paris has been targeted by a coordinated series of terrorist attacks, and there have been more than one hundred people murdered.” I was silent and immobile for a few moments. I then asked, “Do we know who did it? Do we know why?” She said no one had claimed responsibility. Shaking my head, I looked down, stared at a spot on the table until my wife interrupted by asking, “Are you OK?” I looked back at her and responded, “I miss the cold war!”
My mind flooded with images of the Berlin wall being dismantled by masses of people, who had finally won freedom. They jubilantly took to the streets and actively unified a broken Germany. There was laughter and crying. Families were reunited, and celebration was alive in the air. I sat in my college dormitory rapt by the history unfolding on my television screen. College seemed comparatively trivial. Perestroika ()1 was on everyone’s tongue, and the world had become a charmed oasis, gushing possibility and excitement.
Only a few years earlier, humanity’s future looked bleak. The US and the USSR had a combined nuclear arsenal large enough to destroy the planet several times over, and the political rhetoric between the two global superpowers was aggressive and fevered. It seemed our world would likely end with a series of nuclear explosions, which would render this planet incapable of supporting human life. But on November 9 of 1989, masses of ecstatic citizens joined together to dismantle the most potent symbol of nuclear annihilation that my generation had come to know.
The Peace Dividend…
As I sprang from the protective care of my parents’ home, the world changed, and I ventured forth in high hopes of fashioning a new world, free from the nightmares of yesteryear. We would all cash in on the “peace dividend,” and create a better world.
Naiveté, optimism, youthful hope, no matter how you categorize my attitude, those dreams never materialized. Instead the sociological fallout from the tactical decisions of cold war leaders fundamentally altered today’s geopolitical landscape, and now we’re left scrambling to solve problems we don’t understand, while we ask how everything became so ugly, so fast.
Quick action, and a failure to assess!
During the cold war, we failed to assess the consequences of our actions, and in the ensuing decade we continued that trend. Today we continue to fail at assessing the sources of, and solutions to the conflicts in which we’re engaged.
According to an article in the Harvard Business Review’s November 2015 edition,2 people have a bias towards taking action, even when it would be better to do nothing and wait for a thorough assessment. What if, ever since the destruction of the Berlin Wall, we’ve collectively been acting, when we should have been assessing? Why was the anticipated “peace dividend” so elusive? Why does today’s world seem less stable than only a few decades ago? Why are domestic and international terrorists a part of daily news and concern for so many people? How did this all happen and what, if anything, can we do about it?
After September 12, 2001, the USA emerged from stunning attacks with unprecedented goodwill. The global outpouring of solidarity and support was unmatched, and we capitalized on that goodwill, by mustering a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan, and later Iraq. Our collective bias towards action was insatiable, and our response, unconsidered. We committed to a course which has created a whole generation of adults, who can’t remember a time when the US was not at war on foreign soil.
But we had to act, and we had to act decisively!
I agree! However, we didn’t have to act blindly, or from anger. We should have conducted a thorough assessment of the situation. We should have considered the tactical relevance of the US training, provided to Al Quaeda fighters when they resisted the Soviet invasion of the 1980s. We should have examined Soviet failings as they attempted to conquer Afghanistan. We should have thought through the long term effects of destabilizing the region by destroying Iraq’s government. Rather we jumped into action, and today, we’re dealing with the consequences of that hasty decision with the formation of daesh, and their hatred for everyone who isn’t daesh, especially Muslims. It isn’t far-fetched to claim that things are worse than they were, and we’re the cause.
Poor assessments create strategic failures and portfolio blunders!
Portfolio management is the centralized management of one or more portfolios, which includes identifying, prioritizing, authorizing, managing, and controlling projects, programs and other related work to achieve specific strategic objectives.3
On September 20, 2001, nine days after terrorists had hijacked planes and crashed them into New York’s twin towers, destroying the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush delivered what would arguably be the most important speech of his life. Before Congress, as the globe tuned in to his broadcast, Bush said, “Americans are asking ‘Why do they hate us?’” he paused and continued, “They hate what they see right here in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. They hate our freedoms…”4
President Bush had answered a question of fundamental importance to Americans and to our future. In saying, “they hate our freedoms,” President Bush singled out a foundational aspect of American identity, freedom, and told us the terrorists attacks were motivated because of that freedom. His answer gave stakeholders an emotionally palatable answer, which later turned into justification for invading two countries. Bush didn’t provide useful and considered information. He communicated no vision and failed to point us towards a strategic goal. The requisite conditions for portfolio success were absent, and today, a new generation struggles with the consequences of a shallow assessment as we try to right this ship before it sinks in the storm.
Is proper assessment easy?
Some will bristle at my assertions. “We had just been attacked, we had to do something. We couldn’t appear to be passive or afraid” These are all valid points. They tug at our limbic system’s sense of truth, however, they are wrong! According to the Harvard Business Review article referenced above, a study of goalie performances during soccer penalty kicks demonstrate that goalies should never dive to the left or right, but instead, stay on their feet and try to block the shot from the center. Statistically, this improves their chances of success by thirty three percent.
Why then do goalies, especially professional goalies, consistently dive to the right or left when facing a penalty kick? Could it be due to the fact that no one wants to be the goalie who let a game winning ball fly by, without even attempting to dive? Does it seem better to fail while looking good than to fail while doing the right thing, even if it doesn’t look as good? Researches say this is exactly why, and the real consequences of losing an important game are outweighed by the emotional consequences of doing the right thing, and possibly being vehemently criticized for a publicly ignorant perception of inaction.
But terrorism isn’t soccer, and people’s actual lives are at stake!
That is exactly my point. Making a hasty and emotional decision doesn’t improve our chances of victory in a soccer game. Neither does it improve our chances for international political success.
On Saturday, November 14, after the Democratic debate concluded, I sent a tweet to @PMInstitute suggesting that we could fix Washington by replacing our leadership with a series of competent PMPs and PgMPs. My tweet was intended as humor, however, I think it contains a great deal of validity.
Analysis, coupled with a measured response is responsible leadership!
The PMs whom I know veer away from impassioned, reflexive action, and steer towards considered and thoughtful plans. We know that collective wisdom is better than individual genius, and that innovative solutions sprout from the synthesis of divergent ideas and opposing points of view. Any competent PM can recognize that Bush’s 2001 address before congress was a well scripted message aimed at a particular stakeholder demographic, and geared towards creation of a unified response to an unfolding crisis. My criticism does not rest in Bush’s effectiveness at leading the US in a single direction; rather I condemn his thorough failure to skillfully assess the situation and consider the components of what had contributed to creating the crisis, and what would be necessary to navigate a perilous course to its resolution.
The evolution from reactive leadership to Pause And Learn...
In 2003, NASA’s Columbia Accident Investigation Board issued a report with suggestions for how NASA should move in the direction of becoming a learning organization. The first suggested process in the report was titled, Pause And Learn (PAL). PAL is described as “the critical foundation for learning from projects.” A PAL is a discussion of project participants in which they explore what went right and what went wrong. These discussions take place shortly after the event, to minimize the bias of hindsight and maximize accurate recollection. PALs bridge the gap between individual learning and team learning.5 They are based on the US Army’s practice of After Action Reviews.6 They allow a team to share knowledge, so that the team learned a lesson, rather than lessons being held by any single individual.
In our current position, where ideological extremism has resulted in recent terrorist attacks being perpetrated against civilians in Paris, San Bernadino, Beirut, and Colorado Springs. How might a meaningful Pause and Learn point us in a better direction than our natural bias towards immediate and emotionally fulfilling vindictive action? Internally, and internationally, we are identifying enemies, making lists of targets, and planning a response. What if our knee jerk reactions are setting us up for a continuation of failures, similar to what we've perpetrated over the past twenty five years?
An Inappropriate strategy may result in disaster.
According to a Harvard Business publication from July 1963, few companies invest the necessary time into “analyzing environmental trends and using the intelligence as a basis for managing their own futures.”7 Is this problem so ingrained in our behavior that we’re doing the same thing in national and international politics?
In 1957, the Ford Motor Company launched the Edsel. With confidence high, the company spent 250 million dollars on extensive consumer polling, a year long pre-sales advertising campaign, specialized marketing for men, distinct from the advertising aimed at women. Ford lost 350 million dollars on this business blunder, according to the September 2015 Business Insider edition, Ford’s gamble cemented Edsel’s position as an icon of spectacular failure.
Despite Ford’s extensive polling of consumers, and their reams of consumer preference data, Ford relied on gut instincts and board-room posturing to guide their product development and product marketing. This resulted in decisions which ignored data and steered away from a data-driven strategy. Ultimately, the product failed, and the company was lucky to survive.8
Is it possible that the Edsel would have failed even if management had proceeded with a strategy grounded in data? Sure; however, as with professional soccer goalies, Ford’s chances for success would undoubtedly have improved with a data-driven strategy. This is where competent project managers could make a difference. PMs, as a group, tend to rely on facts for their business decisions and recommendations. This is why PMI has enjoyed fantastic success and has grown its industry influence over the course of a few decades.
A project or program manager who is guided by a strategic vision while monitoring progress and accounting for team perspective, is a leader who can guide projects towards success and see where adjustments are needed to correct course.
How might this sort of grounded assessment have impacted US actions after 9/11? How might they prescribe a course in our current predicament? At every level, assessment; based in fact, and guided by a dispassionate review of available information, indicates the path most likely to result in success.
How do you think actions might have been different in this world after the events of 9/11 had our reaction been measured and tactical rather than emotional and driven by outrage?
How could we apply these lessons as we proceed with our response to recent terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Colorado Springs, and San Bernadino?
What could we learn moving forward, and how does this impact your thinking about business?
Holy smoke, the closing speaker was incredible! She earned her standing ovation, and gave us all something to think about as we head out into our respective jobs back home.
However, before the closing speaker, we had one final day of PMI X-change, where I met with two folks who discussed innovation from the context of working within the confines of forwarding a specific strategy. One of the most interesting ideas put forth was that innovation can be encouraged by simplifying complexity into categories, which allows people to spend less time sorting out the complexity and more time imagining how to apply what is already there in new ways. Aside from that, a safe environment is essential, and the willingness to take a chance and fail.
After breakfast, I checked in at the PMI Community Area for "Ask an Expert Sessions." The experts were busy, and discussions for me ranged from working with unwilling team members to exploring scheduling software options with the manager of a PMO. I always pause when someone asks for a software solution to their problem, because so often, process can fix what software will never touch. This situation may have had some of that, but our PMO director is also in need of some robust software. At the close of the hall, and the last "Ask an Expert" session, we got a group picture of the experts, this is no small feat. Experts like to wander around and are easily distracted, so getting them all together to take a photo is challenging, but being project managers, we were able after much effort to accomplished even that task!
Then a few of us experts attended "Scaling Agile" by NK Shrivastava. He discussed some implementations of Agile in huge organizations, which require more structure than most Agile teams appreciate, but when you scale that stuff big, you need controls. I asked a few questions about risk management and planning for mitigation, but decided to leave him alone, as I don't have experience with agile. After the presentation, I asked about Agile in my workplace, particularly with regards to running a software implementation on a fixed budget. He paused, and then said he wouldn't typically employ agile for that sort of project, unless there were a great many unknowns. We all discussed his presentation, along with various ways to scale agile, and somewhere in the back and forth, he let us know that it is a requirement for every person presenting at PMI Congress to have published a white paper on their topic. This prompted me to ask if it is easier to write a white paper than it is to read one...appropriate laughter ensued and we parted ways.
There was time yet in the day for one more session, so I stopped in on "The Promotable Project Manager," by Richard Heaslip, author of "Managing Complex Projects and Programs." His presentation was great. He the findings of studies into the expectations of leadership from project managers in varied organizations. The studies presented the hypothetical situation of an executive encountering a project manager in the hall and saying something like, "I am worried about a specific aspect of your project, and think that this ...may be a solution."
The question being studies was how most PMs respond:
Given those options, most PMs elected to arrange a meeting or relate the executive's comments to the SME. There were some who might also discuss the SME's perspective, but very few who would discuss their own point of view, much less the team's or organization's perspective. It turns out 50% of executives in the same organization want their PMs to respond using #5, while 50% believe this is overstepping their appropriate bounds. The suggestion was for organizations to meet and discuss the level at which they want their PMs to operate, and then communicate that to their PMs and hold each other accountable to it. In terms of a PM, his suggestion is to develop the ability to contextualize your projects from an organizational perspective, but be prepared to craft your answer, based on the audience, and their expectations.
At the close of the congress, we were treated to a presentation by Stacy Allison, author of "Beyond the Limits: A Woman's Triumph on Everest," who gave an incredible presentation about her adventure and lessons in becoming the first American woman ever to reach the summit of Mt. Everest. Stacy did a masterful job of contextualizing every aspect of her journey within the framework of building a team, or making important decisions. Her's may have been one of the best presentations I've ever seen. It wasn't the most funny, or entertaining, but it was real, and pertinent and applicable. I will be thinking about her presentation for months to come. Click here for a short video of her speaking at another event.
After that, we team of PMI experts went to Disney Springs and treated ourselves to Cuban food, and then we wandered around and I found this fifteen foot tall statue built with LEGOs.
This was my first trip to PMI Global congress, and it was great. I enjoyed everyone I met, I loved the speakers and the breakout sessions. I especially enjoyed being a member of ProjectManagement.com's expert brigade. We all expressed the hope that we'll have the opportunity to attend future PMI Congress events as experts.
Thanks for the memories, for the friendships, for the wisdom and for the experiences. The 2015 PMI Global Congress was spectacular!
In the upcoming weeks, the experts will convene to figure out what we'll propose for next year. We'd like to host a panel discussion on Saturday morning, followed by an invitation to book a fifteen minute consulting session with one of us. I'm curious what sorts of sessions would you be interested in from us? We considered exploring how business material is presented. Currently, we all agree that it is generally rather *BORING*
Would you be interested in attending a session, where we explore ways of presenting business and project management material in a more entertaining fashion? Leave your comments and let me know. We will have to write a white paper on it...which I promise won't be boring!
The second day of PMI Global Congress was pretty great. I started this post a few days back, but was exhausted and fell asleep in front of my computer, so I'm now sitting in the Denver Airport on a layover, waiting for my flight to Albuquerque, so that I can get home to family in Los Alamos.
I have to hit the rewind button on my memory to a couple of days back. The first thing I did that morning was facilitate a PMI X-Change discussion for new practitioners at breakfast. We had three folks, who are studying for their PMP exams, and who are actively working in positions where they are getting project management experience. There was a lot of interest from our brand new practitioners in how to get the PM hours they need, and how to advance their careers. Obviously, I introduced the idea of volunteering for PMI and then a discussion ensued about the benefits of volunteering for your chapter (you should have seen that coming!) We also discussed practical applications of PM basics, like defining scope, gathering requirements, and communicating with management and your team. It was a great discussion, and I enjoyed facilitating in that setting. I also find that it is always useful to hear other people discuss the basics of project management, and how they apply it in their line of work.
After breakfast, the key-note speaker, David Robertson, shared about what he learned of innovation from LEGO, while he served as the LEGO Professor of Innovation and Technology Management at Switzerland’s Institute for Management Development.
David was a fascinating speaker, and his key-note was thought provoking. The picture I included above is taken from our ProjectManagement.com Expert outing to the Epcot Center later that evening. The name, "Project Tomorrow," reminded me of David's LEGO presentation, where he discussed how LEGO nearly went bankrupt, because of the quantity of innovation taking place, and the incredible complexity that it had introduced for the company. Most of it didn't result in a net gain, and most of it was inconsistent with LEGO's brand. He detailed this story in his book, "Brick by Brick," which sounds like a great read!
The rest of the day, I spent discussing PMI chapter experiences with other "Ask an Expert" folks, and meeting with conference attendees. I was able to discuss soft skills with some attendees, business process review techniques with others, and the importance of a robust effort to gather requirements. This is a truly valuable part of the Congress experience, which was introduced by ProjectManagement.com. It was valuable in that attendees get a free 15 minute consulting session and just as in the PMI X-change breakfast, I was exposed to how other organizations and groups conceive of and employ PMI methodology.
That evening, several ProjectManagement.com's 'experts' went to Disney's Epcot center together. We had a blast. and really created a bond. My professional network expanded by seven people from around the world as a result of my participation in "Ask an Expert." These are some accomplished people too. They bring decades of executive experience, NASA experience, regional government experience, PMI volunteer experience, etc... They include people who went through the Leadership Institute Masters Class, have participated in writing standards for PMI, have started and effectively run large PMOs, they are fantastic.
I'll try to get a post up tomorrow detailing day III of #PMICongress, which was also great. I'll close this post with a hearty thank you to the ProjectManagement.com experts for your camaraderie, and your service to others, and your expertise. It was truly a privilege getting to know each and every one of you!